Bass players hold a vital place in most jazz groups. As the late bassist Charlie Haden put it, "When the bass stops, the bottom kind of falls out of everything." Bassists create the rhythmic underpinning that strings the chords together, and their pace-setting subtly unifies the entire ensemble.
But while this role implicitly entails elements of leadership, bass players who explicitly lead their own groups used to be a less familiar sight. It was first Carlo Mombelli and the Prisoners of Strange, and then Herbie Tsoaeli with the 2013 Sama-winning album African Time who brought the bassist-leader to audience attention in SA.
Now there are many more, including Lex Futshane, Thuto Motsemme, Viwe Mkizwana — and the man who has just scooped the 2017 Standard Bank Young Artist of the Year award for jazz (to perform at next year’s Grahamstown Festival), Benjamin Jephta.
Perhaps that’s why Jephta (24) is quick to blur the distinction between player and leader. "I don’t often see the difference," he says. Whether as sideman or leader, he likes to work in groups that "operate as democratically as possible. Even when I’m the ‘leader’, I’m not trying to push anything, but rather for all of us to go where the music goes. Together." Even before the release of his debut as leader, Homecoming, Cape Town-bornJephta had established himself as a bassist of choice, first in Cape Town and then, since 2014, in Johannesburg, with popular artists such as Loyiso Bala and Simphiwe Dana, as well as in jazz.
He features on recent albums from Claude Cozens, Nduduzo Makhathini, Thandi Ntuli and McCoy Mrubata, and his tall, dreadlocked figure is often silhouetted by the spotlights at the back of the Orbit jazz club stage.
Homecoming, where Jephta composed as well as playing and leading, is characterised by melodies that are soaring, lyrical, and catchy. Jephta shaped the project as a return to his musical roots in church in Mitchells Plain, where his father was worship leader. His father had been a lead singer of a cover band, and the possessor of a formidable CD collection that the young Jephta enthusiastically mined. Church was where he first learnt the rudiments of music by playing along on a toy guitar.
More than nostalgia
Homecoming showcased a rare collection of talents including pianist Kyle Shepherd, trumpeter Marcus Wyatt, reedman Sisonke Xonti, and drummer Sphelelo Mazibuko. But the church elements on the album were more than nostalgia. They were also an assertion of a distinctive, SA jazz identity. After attending Muizenberg High School, Jephta studied at UCT’s SA College of Music, from which he graduated in 2013 with the fourth-year class medal. "We were taught a lot of non indigenous music at university," he reflects. "So when we formed the [ Homecoming ] project, we wanted to take what we learnt there and fuse it with the music of home and church — the ‘chordal clichés’, if you like — to let a new music grow from that."
"As a young musician," he says, "you don’t want to be stuck in what’s gone before, whether that’s in jazz, rock, hip-hop or any music. Look at the klopse [Cape carnival bands] — even they are now playing today’s pop tunes in brass-band format."
Jephta shares Cape Town roots with many of the new generation of jazz players, including Shepherd. But he feels there’s too much of a tendency to put all Cape Town players in the same box, and ignore the personal character of their music. Journalists too often rehash the same tired clichés about the influence of Abdullah Ibrahim ("unavoidable", he says) and goema rhythms when writing about Cape Town jazz, he feels. But he points out that Cape Town is a large, diverse city that shapes its children in many different ways. "Kyle and I have similar tastes and listening habits. But we’re individuals. We grew up in different suburbs, with different influences."
It’s that capacity to express a personal voice that leads him to favour the double bass over the electric instrument, though he plays both. "As a jazz musician in particular, you eventually gravitate to the double bass. It has more warmth. Unlike an electric instrument, it’s very personal. If another person has the same electric bass as me, they can sound the same. "But with the double bass, even on the same music, we’ll both sound different."